Monday, December 29, 2008

The spiral of egoism

I GOT into singing very early in life. As kids, my brothers and I would just pick up any song we would hear over the radio, and start singing it, often with fractured lyrics.

My father would be most amused. I remember a younger brother singing his version of Matt Monro’s “Born Free.” Completely without shame, he would sing, “Born tree, as tree as the window,” instead of “Born free, as free as the wind blows.”

I, of course, had my own blunders, but I’m not in the mood now to talk about them. But there was one song that I immediately fell in love with. I think it was sung by Sammy Davies—those in their 50s may still remember him—and its title was, “What kind of fool am I.”

It had a very soft, soothing melody, just right for my taste at that time, just enough for me to fly to the moon, and I must have sung it a million times. But there was a line there that always struck me—I remember relishing those words in my lips so much I’d go OA singing it—for it gave me an idea of what a fool is.

The line was: “It seems that I’m the only one that I’ve been thinking of.” I found the words very relevant, since I could relate them to my problem then. If I thought always of myself, I would end up quarreling always with the brothers, that’s 7 of them. If I thought less of myself, the quarrels also lessened.

Our clashes often erupted on the heels of the usual forms of egoistic foolishness—laziness, greed, envy, etc. Reflecting on those years, I find it amazing that these culprits didn’t come to us. They just seemed to have sprung from us—really, an intriguing aspect of our human condition.

So, eureka! I saw some connection, before I learned its original and distilled form from the Gospel or from any priest or nun in school. The secret to a more peaceful life for me, I sort of concluded, was to think less of myself!

Years passed quickly, and that seed of an insight also grew and developed. Of course, now it’s like an old acacia tree that looks like it will last till time’s end itself.

Now as priest, this is the advice I often give to many people who come to me telling me of their conflicts. Forget yourself, I would say. No matter how right you think you are and no matter how wrong you think the other party is, you have to think more of him or her, and love them, the way Our Lord loves all of us!

Of course, this is easier said than done. So I have to give some concrete indications with more immediate and direct effects. My favorite is to hold one’s horses, to control one’s emotions, to restrain one’s provoked feelings, to delay reacting to a problem until one is in better control of his senses.

And then to pray hard, think, study and try to discover those points in the conflict that can help in bridging the gap. There must be those points. Not everything can be bad and negative. Then offer sacrifices. Ask the intercession of saints, etc. In short, go to our Lord.

I think that idea is born directly from our Lord’s words: “Come to me, all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart…” (Mt 11,28-29)

I think these words are not meant to apply only on some occasions. They are meant for all spells of difficulty we may find ourselves in.

In the first place, our nature and constitution, what with our spiritual aspect, requires us to set our sights and thoughts outside of ourselves. The moment we look too much into ourselves, we spin a spiral of egoism that can be very dangerous, even fatal, to us.

And then our Lord himself commanded us to love God with all our might and others as ourselves. We cannot remain simply loving our own selves.

The home where we truly can lay our hat, feel secure and most happy, is not in ourselves. It’s in our communion with God and with others. We need to get out of that spiral that plunges us deeper into ourselves, poisons our thoughts, and detaches us from others, and especially from God, the ultimate Other.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Money and religion

WE have to learn how to blend these two elements. We cannot be simplistic and put them always in conflict. Yes, there are dangers to avoid. But we have to distinguish the good from the evil involved in the use of money. Otherwise, we might throw the baby out with the bath water.

It’s true that the Gospel warns us to serve only one master. We cannot serve both God and Mammon, the false idol of material wealth that exercises bad influence on us. (cfr. Mt 6,24)

But this indication is not outright a condemnation of money. We always need money, since we are not angels. We are simply asked to avoid the extreme of considering money as our God, and the other extreme of regarding money as intrinsically evil.

Christ himself had to use some money. When asked if he also had to pay taxes, he told Peter, after alluding that strictly speaking he should be exempted from it, to go to the sea to get money from a fish to pay the taxes. (cfr. Mt 17,27)

Money has to be used with a growing sensibility to its moral dimensions. It has to fit our true human dignity. It has to be related to our conscience, and ultimately to religion. It has to serve both God and man. It can be a wonderful tool for our material and spiritual growth.

In other words, money should not just be used following exclusively practical and economic criteria. We also have to consider higher, spiritual values, since we are not purely economic creatures, but are persons and children of God.

There’s no doubt that money contributes to human progress. Imagine a world without money! We’d hardly advance from the Stone Age. And with population growing and the economy stagnant, there’s nothing much to expect other than chaos.

From my economics-for-dummies class, I learned that money has to circulate as fast as possible to generate economic activity, and thus affect more people and hopefully produce more satisfaction.

But obviously this is not only a matter of speed. There has to be proper direction, since as St. Augustine once said, no matter how fast one runs, if he is off-track, he will never reach the finish line.

We need to find the proper blend. It’s a continuing task requiring us to pray, study, observe, consult, and decide. It’s not easy, and never a perfect activity. We often can’t see the forest for its trees. It thrives more on trial and error. And so we have to be flexible also.

I remember that before I got ordained—this was in Rome —I was asked to buy a new pair of shoes. So I went around to look for the one I liked. When I finally found the pair, I asked the saleslady if those shoes would last long.

She stared at me, as if I was a Martian. Then she asked me, “But why would you like the shoes to last long?”

That question stunned me. I’ve always been taught to buy things that can last even as long as a lifetime. But that remark led me to thinking more deeply. Of course, if everyone would buy shoes only once in a rare while, how would the shoe industry fare?

I concluded that the lady had a very valid point. But I had to study things more comprehensively. I had to integrate it with the requirements of temperance and Christian poverty.

When I was in high school, I hardly bought anything. I always thought I had everything that I needed, since I was told not to create needs. I got this trait from my parents who were very Spartan.

My younger sister would remind me it was time to change my wardrobe, or would introduce me to products like skin lotions and colognes, and the new styles around. She prodded me to buy them.

I was afraid I would fall into consumerism and materialism which I thought would elude my sister’s understanding. But since I did not see these anomalies in her, I followed part of her suggestions. I concluded I exaggerated my fears.

Now I realize she was helping the economy, aside from making me look kind of good. She had more common sense, was more down-to-earth, while I tended to be cocooned with my books, often building castles in the air.

With all the recently discovered ugly schemes and scams in our complicated economic environment today, there’s a crying need to hone this skill of properly blending money and religion.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Good and evil reversed

WE have to be more aware of this tricky phenomenon, and more adept as well in handling it well. This can be an abiding challenge for all of us.

I mean, what is good can become evil, and what is evil can become good. What is right can become wrong, and vice-versa. This phenomenon, actually very common, is iconized in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. (cfr Lk 18,10-14)

The Pharisee was the epitome of goodness and correctness. He fasted twice a week, gave tithes of all what he possessed. But his righteousness converted his prayer into a boast, and it simply showed he was separated from God.

The publican considered himself the receptacle of all possible moral sewage. He could hardly lift up his eyes toward heaven. His prayer dripped with compunction, but it reconciled him with God.

We have to understand that good and evil is a matter of whether one is with God or not. Good is good because one is with God. Evil is evil because he is not with God. It’s as simple as that.

Our problem is that instead of referring things—our thoughts, words and actions—to God, we refer them only to our own idea of what is good and evil.

Not much wrong there really. After all, all things we do have to be referred to our own idea of good and evil. Except that it’s an idea that has been severed from its proper source and basis—God himself.

In short, we make ourselves our own God, our ultimate source of what is good and bad, what is correct and wrong. That’s where the problems come in, where the bugs and viruses enter to corrupt our otherwise good idea.

That is why, everyday and very often during the day we need to check whether our idea of good and evil is still vitally linked with God. We have to be wary with our tendency to just flow in a certain routine and inertia of goodness that has already deadened our living connection with God.

How many times have we observed people who are bright but are proud and vain, wise but sarcastic, bursting with good intentions but painfully lacking in charity? They have become self-righteous.

There have been cases where we see objectively good qualities, like their high intelligence, superb eloquence, admirable work habits, etc., ceasing to be a blessing but have become a curse to them and to others.

These qualities have become an occasion to dominate others, to so distort their proper use that they stop serving God and others but have become self-serving. They can even degenerate into sick obsessive-compulsive complexes (OC).

I like to think that the current American economic catastrophe is a microcosm of this phenomenon. The Americans’ frontiersman spirit and entrepreneurial ways have been misused and have led them to where they are now, since America ’s body politic can only take so much.

What can happen is that when wrongly grounded and directed, what made one rise, could also make him fall. Like a person who over-eats, it will have diarrhea. Like one who over-works, it will succumb to fatigue. The organism will find a way to signal its sickness and correct it.

Even the supposedly good and holy people, like priests, nuns, bishops, etc., can misuse their status, covering their malice with a façade of sanctity and goodness. These are the most dangerous scoundrels, since the anti-Christ can look and act like Christ!

For all that, we should not be completely pessimistic. There’s always a way to recover, and convert what is wrong and bad into something good, a source of genuine greatness.

Let’s always remember Christ’s words: “There shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner who does penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need no penance.” (Lk 15,5)

All that is needed is to say sorry to our Lord from the bottom of our heart. And what was bad can mutate into something good again. Let’s always learn the lessons that the lives of St. Paul and St. Augustine give us.

So, while we should be serious in our efforts to be consistently good and holy, let’s also learn to relax. There’s always hope. In the end, God not only has the first word. He also has the last. Evil always longs for the good from which it fled.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ending and beginning

NOW that we are again ending a year and beginning a new one, we have to remember that the event is not simply a matter of changing the calendar. We have to see the bigger picture. We should not be economical with the truth involved.

This ending-and-beginning routine strongly reminds us of the value of time, of its relation to eternity, of the kind of being we all are. These are the kind of truths—ultimate, some people call them—that seem dead and buried, victims of our daily grind of earthly and temporal concerns.

We need to resurrect them once in a while. In fact we need to have an abiding sense of them, as vividly as possible, for they play the crucial role of giving shape and direction to our life. They are like the rudder in a ship, unseen, insignificant in size, but completely indispensable.

Have you been in a rudderless boat? I once was. It was in a voyage from Manila to Cebu many years ago. I will not mention names, I will seal my lips until kingdom come, since it’s not public knowledge as of now, but at one point the captain realized the rudder fell off.

It was a nightmare for all of us, the passengers. A very messy operation of being towed and transferred in the middle of the sea to another boat got me praying like it was my last. I conditioned myself to have an early watery grave.

The New Year should bring us to considering more deeply, more seriously, questions like where did we come from, where are we going, and who and what really are we?

We cannot remain in the state of ignorance nor bound to the externals, the peripherals and the surficial. We need to touch base with the essential and even the eternal. We quite know we are not just material beings, nor purely social and economic creatures. Much less are we merely political animals.

There’s a lot more to us than meets the eye. Since we can think, reason out, plan, talk and communicate, since we can choose, love and be free and responsible, there must be something spiritual in us.

This is because we do things beyond the material natural laws of physics, chemistry and biology. We are governed more by moral law that recognizes our spiritual dimension and, in fact, our supernatural goal.

We are material, yes, but we are not supposed to be stuck in that dimension alone. And if we look more closely into our spiritual side, we realize that we are not just left in a kind of void for us to fill up in any way we want, nor in an infinite space for us to cruise in any direction we like to take.

Somehow deep in our heart, something tells us that all this infinity we are exposed to must have a beginning, purpose and meaning. It must have a creator. It’s hard to conclude that these things just came to exist spontaneously, since from nothing, nothing can come out.

This is where we can entertain the possibility of a God, completely supernatural. We somehow feel he’s around, but we cannot reach him, much less see him, precisely because he is supernatural.

This is where we can get entangled with our doubts and uncertainties. We can say that our mind is just playing tricks on us. But even that option cannot banish the doubts. It cannot dispel the darkness in our mind that will always try to penetrate that infinite space.

It’s just hoped that at this point we realize the need we have of the gift of faith, something given to us in a gratuitous way that strengthens, purifies and directs our spiritual powers, so they can run home and avoid getting lost in the infinite void.

That’s why religions rose over the years in different cultures and civilizations. The distinction of the Christian faith is that it is based on a revelation, a historical event that captures a supernatural phenomenon.

We don’t have space to discuss this point at length now. But the important thing to remember is that the New Year is supposed to bring us to back to the basics, so we don’t get lost in our daily activities, doing many and even great things that in the end will just be dust in the wind.

We need to develop the appropriate attitudes, skill and habits so we can have a rudder in our voyage through the vast ocean of life.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Case-hardening the family

WITH the American financial crisis likely to affect us, we need to brace ourselves for the worst. Everyone has to be prepared. The government and other institutions have to do their part to at least mitigate the expected impact.

We are told that the worst has still to come. That’s scary. So far, we know that a good number of financial institutions have already gone bankrupt and are now being bailed out or rehabilitated.

The US auto industry is in ICU and in dire need of a bailout. Many banks have laid off thousands of their employees. And then, they have just arrested a respectable big shot who for decades have done good business, only to be found out that it was all a scam, a Ponzi scheme, involving $50 billion.

Whew, imagine the ramifications! It has been a long, rough episode for all of us, and it’s still rolling. My economist-friends talk about both collateral damage and benefit we in our country can derive from this situation. But we really do not know what the net balance will be. Black or red?

I just hope that we have leaders who are quick enough to understand the whole mess, grab the bull by the horns, and take control of its wild dynamics. We all need to be pacified and shown a clear way out of this screw-up.

There’s just one institution that has to be given special attention--the family. Since it plays a pivotal role in supporting the individual persons on the one hand, and society itself on the other, everything has to be done to strengthen it.

Whatever may be the gravity and scope of this crisis, we need to know the practical details of how the family can wrestle with this gathering storm, and make it the basic engine for our recovery.

Everything passes through the person and the family, before it reaches the economy and society at large. The effectiveness of the monetary and fiscal moves, the stimulus packages now planned or already put in play, will depend on the family.

Essential in strengthening the family is first and last its spiritual and moral strength. It may lack material resources, but if spiritually it is healthy, it can handle the problem and truly help the individual members and society itself.

When the family goes beat and weak, individual persons and society suffer. They’d be exposed to the elements, to all sorts of danger in their most vulnerable condition.

When the sense of family is anemic, everyone is left badly prepared to cope with any problem. We need to enrich our family with practices that truly strengthen family life. This is where spent energies are recovered.

For this, the conjugal love is crucial, since it’s the motor that keeps the family going strong and healthy. The spouses should keenly feel the need to deepen their love for one another.

Everyday they have to have a clear idea of how to make their love grow. This is a serious duty with serious consequences. They have to realize that their love has to become more spiritual and theological each day. It should never be allowed to remain in the purely human and material level.

Thus, we need to be wary of certain factors that can undermine family life—attachments to work, to social life, or pure pride, self-centeredness, laziness and other destructive vices and tendencies.

Parents should take the initiative to educate their children, understanding education as the process that goes beyond simply giving data, issuing rules and the like for the children. It has to be fully engaged in the task of leading their children to human and Christian maturity.

Family traditions should be fostered, like having meals together, spending time together, talking with each other, growing in mutual understanding, etc. There has to be a kind of plan to initiate and sustain the development of virtues in everyone.

Defects and deficiencies in each one should be noted and properly addressed. That’s the reason why parents, especially the mothers, need to spend a lot of time at home, since this is needed for an effective management of the family.

It might be good to avail of family-oriented groups that can help the family members to carry out their respective duties properly. These groups can also give families their appropriate continuing formation.

These can be some relevant considerations to make the family shock-proof for the rough times ahead.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas always survives

THERE’S really no question about Christmas being able to survive. It will, whether in good times or in bad. In fact, I think the bad times will make Christmas surface its true nature and spirit better than the good times. They can be a blessing in disguise.

The problem is how people are taking the drastic changes that seem to accompany this year’s economically challenged Christmas. What we really have to do is just to stay calm, and learn our precious if abject lessons.

Our problem is that we seem to be so obsessed with the cool, easy and heavily sentimental feel of Christmas that we have forgotten what Christmas is all about. Its external and commercial aspects have drained the true substance of Christmas.

Just take a quick look at the crop of Christmas songs and gimmicks lately. They seem to be meant to make us feel good only. They hardly lead us to pray. They don’t nourish our faith. They don’t improve our knowledge and love for Christ. To make sacrifices is rendered taboo.

We now have many generations of people for whom Christ has become a stranger to Christmas. The connection between Christ and Christmas has been broken, a result of an unchecked errant socio-cultural drift.

The phenomenon calls to mind to images. One, a structure that has become so top-heavy there is no other way but for it to collapse. Or, two, a balloon that has become so bloated and flighty that it gets detached from its foundation.

It’s about time, I think, that some deep correction be made. We should not be surprised that we have some disconcerting developments enveloping our Christmas this year. We have been building up these developments for years. The current crisis was just a matter of time.

If the correction is not done by us, then circumstances will make sure we get back to the original meaning of Christmas. That’s how I see the dramatic changes taking place now. That’s part of God’s providence. And the correction, the healing, will always involve pain.

These past few days, I and, I suppose, many others have been forced to revisit economic concepts and financial terms I have long ago left behind. Bailouts, layoffs, recession, bankruptcy, hedge fund, Ponzi scheme, etc. are making the top of the list in people’s vocabulary these days.

If only for this development alone, I think we already have benefited something substantial from the current global crisis. It has introduced us to the intricacies of the world of economics and finance that are now getting more complicated and sophisticated.

We need to get better acquainted with these realities, so we can improve our stewardship over them. I don’t think it’s part of the Christmas spirit to cling to the ancient order of things. What is essential to Christmas is for our heart to be firmly anchored on Christ even as we flow with the times.

And to be firmly rooted in Christ means to be good, simple and austere, honest, prudent. It means to have a spreading sense of justice and solidarity, a clear idea of the common good.

It means to fight against greed and deception, the temptation to dominate others, to be vain and given to purely worldly values. It is averse to self-enrichment at the expense of others.

It does not mean to be naïve, to stick to one rigid way of doing things, or to one unchangeable world order. In fact, it is open to anything. It delights in changes and progress. It respects and fosters variety of opinions and positions in our temporal affairs as long as they enrich our unity.

The only thing necessary is that everything be done with Christ and for Christ. His will and commandments should be followed. And achieving this goal will always entail sacrifice. Are we ready to face this challenge?

Unfortunately, this is the element that’s often forgotten or ignored these days. People fail to see the importance and relevance of Christ in their business. They don’t know how to relate Christ to their human affairs.

Christmas invites us to allow Christ to truly be born in us. That’s its ultimate significance. Christ wants to come to us, for we are actually meant to be with him. We need to correspond to this loving invitation effectively.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

To a new young priest

I RECENTLY had a chance to talk about the priesthood when I was asked to give a homily in the first Solemn Mass of a newly ordained young priest. It was an occasion for me to review my own priestly life of some 17 years. I realize it has been a very exciting part of my life.

The theory about the priesthood is, of course, well known, and every priest tries his best to abide by what is indicated. Life, however, has its continuing challenges and surprises that can severely test but hopefully progressively perfect one’s understanding of the priesthood as defined and described in the books.

No matter how well-intentioned one may be with respect to being faithful to one’s vocation, the reality of things has a way of bringing one back to earth, of realizing that what was studied to become a priest even with utmost diligence was just given a lick and a promise. Many, endless things still need to be learned.

Priesthood is a continuing and living affair with God and men. It’s akin to a contact sport, since it involves one to be so close and identified with the people he should be willing to get dirty with them. But it also requires him to be truly in contact with God. Otherwise, everything will look funny indeed!

I know that everyone, the laity included, has this kind of affair too. But the priesthood has that distinctive mark of being an active, not passive, bridge between God and men.

This is because the priest is configured to Christ as head of the Church. His share of Christ’s threefold function of sanctifying, teaching and governing the Church assumes an active character. He is at once a leader, and because of that, a servant. Thus, the hybrid term, almost an oxymoron, ‘servant-leader’, to refer to a priest.

Not so with the laity. It’s true that they do play a very active role in the Church. They live a common priesthood which is somehow a participation of Christ’s priesthood. They do some sanctifying, some teaching and some governing in the Church. But for all that, they depend on the clergy.

This is how Christ established his Church. The power to act in his person and in name as head of his Church up to the end of time was given not to all, but to Peter and the apostles, transmitted to the bishops and shared with the priests.

Thus the priestly identification with Christ is different from the identification with Christ the other faithful have. Everyone is configured to Christ, of course. Everyone has equal dignity and mission. But there is functional diversity, and the difference between ministerial and common priesthood is essential and not only in degrees.

The priesthood has to be exercised for the benefit of the other faithful in the Church. This is the purpose of the priesthood. Without this objective, the priesthood can be fatally handicapped. It crashes. It goes kaput.

Thus, the priest has to undertake a continuing process of transitions and adaptations in the different levels and aspects of life, since he has to link and reach both God and men. He cannot be just his own self. By definition, he has to be identified with God and men.

That is, he truly has to be another Christ, echoing St. Paul ’s words: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Or better still, echoing Christ’s words when he walked on the lake toward his disciples who suspected him to be a ghost: “Do not be afraid, it is I.”

He has to be both studious, prayerful, recollected, in fact, contemplative on the one hand, and active, immersed with the affairs of men and of the world, on the other. He has to have the mind of Christ, the sentiments and longing of Christ.

He also has to bear with him all the concerns of the men, since like Christ he has to be all things all men. In fact, he should carry within his heart the whole burden of the Church.

That is, he truly has to pray and to be willing to make sacrifices even to the extent of being crucified like Christ. Short of that, priesthood gets caricaturized into being a title only, or an office, or worse, a badge or costume to wear only on official functions. That’s when it deserves to be laughed at.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Loneliness even in a crowd

AT least two books on loneliness were reviewed recently in an American newspaper, indicating a rise of interest in this subject that seems to afflict a growing number of people.

It can’t be denied that a sense of loneliness can seize a person at any moment. It can come not only in a bleak, rainy evening, or when one so close just passed away. It can descend even when one is in a party, a family dinner or in the middle of a frenzied shopping.

Loneliness by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick (Norton, 317 pages) and Loneliness as a Way of Life by Thomas Dumm (Harvard, 193 pages) try to dissect this intriguing phenomenon, analyzing its causes and even exploring its possible meaning and significance in our lives.

I’ve read some excerpts and there is no doubt that the book come as a result of thorough study and research. These things are always welcome. Data culled from these studies at least serve for something.

My only reservation is that with all the gargantuan effort to know about the subject as scientifically as possible, there is hardly any or no reference at all to the part that religion plays in it.

Certainly, there are physiological, psychological, personal and social factors that go into this disturbing trend. But to leave the spiritual aside is, I think, not just a matter of missing a button, but rather to discard the most important aspect.

Loneliness has its roots in the spiritual emptiness that people knowingly or unknowingly suffer. And spiritual emptiness is not just an absence of spiritual activities. A person may be deep in thinking, reflecting, willing, wanting, etc., but still feels empty.

This occurs when in spite of the vigorous spiritual activities, a person still fails to get to the irreducible foundation and the ultimate purpose of life and things.

Without this foundation and a sense of following a North Star in life, no amount of activities, physical or spiritual, can fill him with peace, joy and a sense of being in communion with others. They only cover but not fill the void inside. They can only give a quick fix but not a permanent answer to a human need.

Truth is we are not made to be alone. Our subjectivity—the fact that we can make our own conscious world—is not meant to make us alone, but rather to connect us with others, God especially, in the deepest, most intimate way.

Our togetherness, for sure, is not just a physical one or a mechanical one. It’s not even a socio-political one. It is a union of life and love, what is precisely called as communion, a term we need to be more familiar with.

That’s our goal. That’s where our perfection is achieved, where the deepest longing of our heart gets its ultimate reward. But what usually happens these days? We see a lot of people, smart and clever, using all their best powers to reinforce their self-seeking, self-assertion, and self-absorption.

People are walling themselves in their own world. Their forays and ventures outside their walled cities are done for no other purpose than to strengthen their own selfhood.

And this communion is possible only when it is anchored on God, the original and absolute other, the beginning, middle and end of our life. Short of this, any attempt to achieve communion and to avoid loneliness is doomed.

That’s the reason why Christ, when queried what the greatest commandment was, said: “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole mind.”

And he continued: “And the second is like to this—you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22,37.39)

The cure to loneliness is to love. But to love properly, the way God loves us. That’s why, Christ gave out the new commandment to perfect the old one: “A new commandment I give unto you—that you love one another, as I have loved you…” (Jn 13,34)

The love that conquers loneliness can only be the love of God that should be the pattern and spirit of whatever love we have in life—be it with a person, for our work and country, etc.

It’s a love in truth and goes all the way to the cross, to giving up one’s life here on earth!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Media responsibility

AN interesting study has just been reported in an American paper about the effects of media on children.

Distilled from some 173 researches done over a period of the past 30 years, the report said there’s strong and disturbing correlation between children spending a lot of time with TV, video games, Internet, etc. and a variety of negative health effects.

“In a clear majority of those studies, more time with television, films, video games, magazines, music and the Internet was linked to rises in childhood obesity, tobacco use and sexual behavior,” it said.

“A majority also showed strong correlations—what the researchers deemed statistically significant associations—with drug and alcohol use and low academic achievement,” it continued.

The report is expectedly done in a language considered as politically correct at the moment. When it said that children’s overexposure to media can affect their brain development, I think they mean it can deform their consciences. When it said such exposure leads children to risky sexual behavior, I think they mean immoral, that is, sinful sexual practices. But, ok, I understand.

Those behind the study vowed to continue monitoring and studying the developments in this area of concern. One of them was surprised to find an absence of research into the impact of new technologies.

He said, “Media has evolved at a dizzying pace, but there’s almost no research about Facebook, MySpace, cellphones, etc.” It’s good that such concern is now being raised. Our challenge is how to identify dangerous trends in things that offer many practical advantages. And of course, what to do with it.

Pertinent to this observation, I have seen adults, not just children, badly affected by these new gadgets. They show signs of obsession and addiction, as they forget even to eat, lose sleep, and neglect other duties to their families, not to mention the spiritual ones, like prayer.

In short, many have become couch potatoes, glued to their seats for hours, completely dominated by what’s before them on the screen, disoriented and practically dead to the outside world and even their immediate surrounding. They live virtual lives.

I myself am having difficulties in this area. I am now tempted to declare for myself some email bankruptcy, since I receive so many of them everyday, mostly spams, that just to erase them not only wastes my time, but also raises my blood pressure.

It’s about time that we take serious steps to know more about this trend and to do something, even something drastic, about it. Our future is at stake. Our danger is not only from wars and terrorism. It can come right from our own homes. These technologies are notoriously treacherous.

This is, of course, a responsibility of everyone. Parents have the primary and most direct role to play. Then the teachers and other elders. But the government and also the media should do their part.

And given the latter’s capabilities and resources, they should do something massive and abiding to support the parents’ delicate duties in this regard. They cannot anymore be naïve and play blind. They have to boldly face the issue.

Those behind the study are precisely recommending this. And I’m very happy about that proposal. Alas, it seems the time has arrived for this concern to be taken seriously, and not anymore treated as an idea so wild it has to be chased away. I hope I’m not wrong.

On many occasions, I get deeply but helplessly bothered by what I see especially on noontime TV shows that are greedily lapped up by the people, especially the young ones and those who are mostly idle.

There’s so much inanity and frivolity, so much twisted values being flaunted with almost total impunity. People are given a daily diet of toxic entertainment. Sooner or later, the effects will show. We are now building up a potential moral and social explosion.

We need to liberate ourselves from such foolishness, hiding behind the excuse that people just want to have fun and amusement. The idea is not to kill fun, but to make it fit for human consumption.

Though things vary from person to person, family to family, group to group, concrete plans of actions have to be made to guide everyone for a prudent use of the new media technologies.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Life is a journey

INDEED, it is. I even prefer to call it a pilgrimage, since this journey is not just a matter of going from one place to another. It is about going to our definitive home, not here, but in heaven. It has a strongly spiritual and religious character.

This life journey involves our whole being. It entails not just our physical and material aspects, our social and human sides. It covers the fullness of our nature and its intrinsic dignity that certainly goes beyond our earthly dimensions.

Remember St. Augustine ’s: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Our rest, our final repose, our ultimate place where we find endless peace and joy is not here. It’s in God.

We need to acquire the relevant attitudes and skills. Our problem is that our human condition usually gives us a very limited, partial and shallow view of life.

Aside from our natural limitations, we have what are called the infranatural limitations—our sins and their consequences—that further distort our vision and weaken our capacity to understand life in its entirety.

So, very often we get stuck with earthly affairs. If it’s not the good earthly things—our successes, our accomplishments and achievements, etc.—then it’s the earthly bad things—our failures, our problems and difficulties—that bind us to a time-and-space life frame.

We end up like pigs that’s always bent toward the ground, looking for food and comfort, with hardly any other terminus in mind.

We need to aim our eyes at a higher life object. We need to liberate our heart and senses from the improper confinement of our earthly conditions. We are meant for a greater goal.

And this is possible because, first of all, there’s God’s grace, and insofar as we are concerned, we have our spiritual nature that enables us to be raised to the supernatural destiny meant of us.

But we have to do our part. We have to enhance our spiritual faculties. We need to make our faith, hope and charity, which always go together and affect each other, grow strong everyday.

Without these, we cannot fly high and pursue the natural and supernatural consequences of our being persons and children of God.

We need to pray. We need to understand and live the objective value of sacrifices. We have to continually grow in the virtues. We have to learn how to be contemplatives even while being immersed in the things of this world.

All these will contribute to an abiding sense that we are journeying in this life. It’s true that at any given time, we’ll find ourselves in a certain place, in a certain situation. But we can’t stay there all the time. We have to move, not so much physically as spiritually. That’s the law that governs us.

So, no matter how exciting or depressing things may be at a given moment, we need to move on. We always have to have the mind of a traveler or a pilgrim. The Letter to the Hebrews says: “We have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come.” (13-14)

We need to foster and reinforce this traveler’s attitude everyday. A prayer on the First Sunday of Advent can amply describe the proper attitude:

“Father in heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love and our minds are searching for the light of your Word. Increase our longing for Christ our Savior and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing at his presence and welcoming the light of his truth.”

We need to guard our senses and our spiritual powers. We cannot allow them to be fully dominated by earthly affairs, even as we are immersed in them. This will require a certain training and discipline.

We have to find a way to be recollected, to rectify our intention. In spite of our drama here, we need to have a way to return our focus on our spiritual and supernatural goal.

Our day should be a microcosm of our life. We need to see to it that at the end of each day, no matter what happened during the day, we get into a spiritual and supernatural mode.

Only one word, said from the heart, can settle everything. By saying “Sorry,” we somehow get reconciled with God and get into his bosom. It’s the skeleton key to heaven.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


IT’S good that the Vatican has issued some guidelines, mainly to government and economic leaders, about how to handle the current financial crisis gripping the US and now affecting many other countries, including ours.

Deserving to be lauded, the statements have so far been marked by both hope and restraint, optimism and realism, respect for the autonomy of our temporal affairs, with their inherent imperfections, and strong appeal to spiritual goodness that can always make do with anything no matter what.

They contain enough economic data to depict the gravity of the situation, indicating that the authors did their homework. But more than this, the statements presented the needed points for reflection, the moral and social principles to follow.

These are the values we need urgently these days, the template to be followed by leaders in the Church, government and civil society.

As much as possible we have to avoid making agitated calls to action that are not thoroughly thought out, consulted and discussed. We have more than enough problems without creating new, unnecessary ones, highly disruptive and counter-productive.

We have to avoid making reckless proposals whose outcomes and effects are not carefully researched. Calls for the so-called “People Power” are one of them. We already had it before, giving us euphoria for a while, but look at what happened soon after that!

It’s very disconcerting to hear some Church leaders making this kind of calls, placing themselves captives to a minority and militant group. They seem to specialize in developing wedge issues out of our problems.

In contrast, it’s nice to know that the Pope has called for a healthy secularity to approach this financial problem, calling for a spirit of collaboration, respect and dialogue with everyone no matter how sharp the differences.

Other Vatican officials have highlighted the proper relevant social doctrines, like the priority of the person, family and labor over capital and profit. They’re giving positive guidelines, not fuel for anger and division.

Even some laymen, experts in economics and finance, have more sense in proposing, for example, to give special attention to the poor since they will be the most adversely affected by the global crisis. Concrete proposals were made to do this, not just a declaration of good intention.

We have to understand that in our temporal affairs, as in our business and politics, there are no perfect situations, nor perfect solutions to problems. It’s good to be an idealist, but that should not be at the expense of being a realist too.

We have to learn to be flexible, to develop the knack of knowing when to be tolerant and intolerant, patient and impatient, what things to take seriously and what with a grain of salt. We have to learn to be broadminded, and not simplistic, to look at the bigger picture, rather than to get stuck with some irritating details.

Prudence is the virtue to learn urgently and to live well these days. We cannot, for example, propose for a sudden change of government without giving a clear alternative of what government to replace it with.

We have to be realistic enough to give due consideration to the way we are, given our culture and history, our national traits, both good and bad. If we are true Christians, we will strive always to be charitable and merciful, in our pursuit for truth and justice.

We need to be respectful of the systems—legal, juridical, economic--that are in place. No matter how imperfect, they just cannot be set aside without a workable alternative and the proper way to effect the transition.

We have to continue consulting and dialoguing with all parties, in great patience and magnanimity. Far be it from us to sow intrigues, if not hatred and bitterness around! These have strong corrosive and toxic effects on society.

For Church leaders especially, the need to set high and clear standard of charity and justice is a must. And to guarantee this, the usual way to do is to practice collegiality among themselves and always in union with the Pope.

It’s when one or some dare to stick to their own guns, no matter how well-intentioned, that we can expect far graver harm on everyone. That’s the way to weaken the Church, to undermine their own credibility and capability to lead and perform their prophetic mission

Monday, December 1, 2008

Expanding our sense of beauty

IT’S good that we revisit our idea of beauty from time to time. The Pope just made another reference to it recently. In effect, he once again wants us to expand our sense of beauty.

These were some of the things he said:

“The search for beauty without truth and goodness can drive young people to fly toward artificial paradises that simply hide interior emptiness.”

“There is currently a dramatic separation between the search for beauty, understood in a reductive way as an exterior form, as an appearance to be sought at all costs, and the search for truth and the goodness of actions.”

“It is needed to again link beauty with reason, since reason that would like to separate itself from beauty would be diminished, as also beauty deprived of reason would be reduced to an empty and illusory mask.”

“Beauty has always been considered a path to arrive to God…The man of today, though absorbed by a cultural climate that is not always adequate for welcoming beauty in full harmony with truth and goodness, still has a desire and nostalgia for an authentic beauty, not superficial and ephemeral.”

Our problem is that we are stuck with just the physical, material and external aspects of beauty. It’s as if beauty has no other dimension, a much deeper one, more proper to us as persons and children of God.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with beauty in those peripheral aspects. What’s wrong is when we fail to connect them vitally to their proper foundation and principle.

What’s wrong is when with the constant bombardment of these aspects in media and elsewhere, we are made to spin and firm up a deepening belief that beauty indeed has no other beginning and end. These are just all it has.

And we cannot deny that there’s a surge these days of more intemperate ways to luxuriate in this kind and level of beauty, dripping with its usual cabal of companions like vanity, pride, arrogance, sensuality, self-absorption, greed, etc.

In fact, we now have some kind of a body cult, an adoration to the body that exacts our full attention to its need for wellness and beauty. It’s a cult that competes and tends to replace the worship we owe to God.

It kills our impulses to pray and make sacrifices. It arouses our bodily instincts and powers while lulling our spiritual faculties to sleep.

We need to defang this trend. And the challenge is precisely how to make it more human, more Christian, more in keeping with our true dignity. It’s not to do away with it completely. It is to regulate it, to subject it to a higher guiding principle.

The main difficulty we have to contend with is the democratic and free market type of economy that actually needs to be infused with the proper spirit. Absent that, it becomes a cesspool of wild, raw and unprocessed tendencies.

This is what we sometimes see in the media. For example, it’s now not anymore a source of shame to strut one’s stuff. Modesty these days is a value violently mutilated by the new and notoriously flirty prophetesses and apostles of the body cult.

Of course, the mentalities of people are changing also. The other day, someone told me that a girl who was to turn 18 decided not to have a debut. Instead she asked her parents for a nose job, some nipping and tucking in parts of her body, and, sorry for this, a bloating of the boobs.

There are many other examples that cannot be mentioned here. Obviously, the whole affair breeds temptations and feeds sins, vices and other irregularities. Scandals have exploded. On second thought, it’s a good sign that we are still scandalized. Woe to us when we stop getting scandalized!

Again, we should not stop at lamenting. That will not take us anywhere. We have to offer the antidote to this sweet poison menacing our society. All of us should find ways of how to relate the attention and care we give to our bodies to our worship to God, to our duty to love God and all.

Those in the media, in the entertainment and body care industry—beauty parlors, spa and massage parlors, gyms, etc.—should be the primary experts on how to link their work to God.

We all have to expand our sense of beauty and body care.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


“SOLDIERS should feel very much a part, a living part of the Church.” This was what a bishop told a camp of soldiers recently, and I could not agree more with him.

There’s the common impression that soldiers are kind of second-class faithful of the Church, staying in the communion’s periphery, if not out of it from time to time. It’s an anomaly that needs to be corrected.

It’s true that their work puts them somewhere in the walls of society. They do some dirty job. But they are there precisely to render a most delicate and indispensable service. Society depends on them for its security, for its peace and order, a fundamental component of our common good.

And they do that duty even at the price of their lives. So, with that alone, they qualify to be the greatest of lovers, for our Lord said: “Greater love than this no man has, that a man lays down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15,13)

Soldiers and all those involved in the military service should feel very much part of the Church. Once baptized, they get vitally incorporated into Christ’s body, sharing the same dignity, calling and mission as everybody else, be he Pope or bishop or priest.

This truth, in fact, needs to be more widely and more vigorously echoed. There is a fundamental equality among all the faithful, even if there is a vast functional diversity.
The latter is supposed to work for the former. Our differences are meant to strengthen the unity and enrich the equality among ourselves. This is because our unity is not uniformity. And neither is our equality merely a mathematical one.

And so, the soldiers should feel the urge to become saints as everybody else also has to feel the same urge. It is their calling. It is what is meant for them. They need to go beyond the military part, and see that their profession springs from God’s will and meant to fulfill that will also.

Thus, the Church is full of soldier-saints. To mention a few, we can cite the following: St. Michael the Archangel, St. George, St. Martin of Tours, St. Louis IX, St. Joan of Arc, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Sebastian.

St. Michael was the leader of God’s army during the uprising of Lucifer. Devotion to him is common to Muslims, Christians and Jews. He is considered the guardian and protector of the Church.

St. George fought and killed a monster dragon-serpent that was defeating armies and devouring sheep and even maidens. He converted many of the locals in what is now part of Libya.

St. Martin of Tours was a soldier before becoming a Christian and then a bishop. He is now the patron of soldiers. St. Louis IX led two crusades. St. Joan of Arc fought battles to restore the true king of France to his throne during her time.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was a soldier who was sidelined because of his wounds and later decided to be a soldier for the Faith.

St. Sebastian was an officer of the Imperial Roman army and captain of the guard during the time of Diocletian who persecuted the Christians. He helped the Christians in prison, and converted many soldiers and a governor to Christianity.

Our soldiers today, we can be sure, are well accompanied by their own kind in heaven. Besides, Christian life involves a lot of soldiering. To be holy involves precisely the mentality and skills of soldiers. Thus, the Gospel and the whole Bible contain a lot of references to military terms, techniques and tactics.

We are told that our life is a warfare. We have enemies—inside us and outside us—with whom we do constant battle. We are supposed to be always watchful like sentinels on guard duty. We need to train ourselves like army readied for battle, etc.

In Christian spirituality, we are encouraged to wage a continuing ascetical struggle—an abiding battle against sin and temptations as well as the skill to handle our weaknesses properly.

More importantly, we are encouraged to grow and mature in the virtues, so that little by little we truly become the image and likeness of God, and also children of His as we ought to be.

In short, we are supposed to be all soldiers as well. We need to know how to use a certain forcefulness, since as we are told in the Gospel, “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away.” (Mt 11,12)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Deriving good from evil

IT has happened a number of times before. Someone commits a mistake, yet it’s a mistake that carries a clear sign of goodwill. And so even if something wrong was committed, one can’t help but appreciate the good it contained.

Recently, a young student gave me an envelope that was supposed to have some amount. Though he meant it for me, I made sure to tell him I would give it to some common fund I share with some people.

But it was empty. I tried to tell the young donor about it, but I forgot and failed. Then days later, the boy texted me asking if the envelope indeed had some money. Apparently, the other envelope he gave to another priest held no money.

So I told him mine did not have either. That’s when he gave me so profuse an apology that I had to reassure him it was all right. I told him I was already deeply impressed by his generosity—at least in intention—for which I was very grateful. That pacified him and he promised to make up, which he did.

I remember that many years ago, when I was still in high school and was helping my father who was a lawyer in typing some papers, something similar occurred.

A client of his, someone who came from one of the towns and clearly with very modest means, suddenly was in need of a typing job. That’s when I offered to do it, meaning it to be gratis, on the house. At that time, I never thought of charging anyone for my services.

But when I was through, the man felt obliged to give me something. He hastily dipped his hands into his pocket and then gave me a “golden” handshake, a discreet way of passing money while shaking hands. I, of course, tried to refuse, but he insisted. Then he rushed out.

When I opened my hands, I saw, not money but a used bus ticket. The whole incident filled me with amusement, because I saw how good that man was, again at least in intention, in spite of his mistake.

Hours later, he came back asking if it was money he gave me. In my thoughtless youthfulness, I just wore my naughty grin, and showed him the bus ticket that must have heightened his embarrassment. He then frenziedly dug his pockets again and fished me a ten-peso bill, quite used and dirty.

Of course, at that time, it was already big money for me, but I was more gratified to see how his heart was much bigger than what he gave. The experience left me floating on the thought I was surrounded by good people.

These might just be simple cases of innocent mistakes that bore loads of goodness. I know there are more difficult situations, involving a degree of malice. But the skill of deriving good from evil is something we have to learn fast these days.

St. Paul says something relevant in his letter to the Ephesians: “See how you walk circumspectly, not as unwise, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (5,14)

I can’t agree more to that statement. In fact, I think that we already condition ourselves everyday that something wrong and evil can befall us, since the possibility is always there. And from there, to act accordingly.

Though St. Paul’s words are more a call to prudence, we need to develop the skill and virtue to draw good when evil is already done. This is what charity is all about.

For this, certain habits need to be developed. We need to be quick to detect the good intention, the generous effort employed, the many mitigating circumstances surrounding a failure or error.

We need to be quick to find excuses for the one in a blunder, to forgive and forget, and to find ways to correct lapses, solve problems and reconcile, avoiding wasting time lamenting and carping. We have to learn to be magnanimous.

We have to learn how to simmer down our spontaneous anger or a persistent sadness, bad humor, discouragement, cynicism. It would be good to know the finer points of patience, optimism and cheerfulness.

Such goodness should be the oxygen we breathe and the element we use to purify the air around us. We should never allow even a perfect storm of negative events to sink our spirit. In the end, it’s the spirit that can draw good from evil.

Tact, delicacy and good manners are always welcome, for they show a refinement and strength of spirit. Let’s rein in our emotions and with God’s grace rev to the max the goodness of our heart.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Truth and the journalist

THE pair should be like lovers, who never want to get separated. In fact, they should be like a married couple, with strong commitments to each other and whose love is renewed daily.

But their relationship is actually very dynamic, and these days many times tenuous, since it’s subject to all sorts of trials and pressures. Many factors and circumstances, some fleeting, others more constant, can tighten or loosen it.

And nowadays, with stiff competition among media outfits, there are tendencies, subtle but consistent, to distort that relationship and reduce it into something else.

Just like couples who allow their love to weaken, or who marry just for convenience, the relationship between truth and the journalist can also deteriorate and get stuck at a level mutually dangerous for both of them. Truth is not properly served and the journalist is unavoidably corrupted. The market gets a bad product.

Each newspaper and media outlet, I imagine, has its own idea of its market, and each one tries to capture and keep that market’s attention. That’s its niche, and the kind of thing it dishes out is its level of journalism.

Everyone has to feel the responsibility to make his journalism conform to the objective purpose of his profession, while adapting it the local or market conditions. He actually plays a crucial role in developing people, both personally and socially. He should have an abiding awareness of this duty.

It cannot be denied that the journalist has tremendous influence on the people. Forget the claim that he just reports, he only mirrors things, he is objective and neutral. No such thing.

He at least sets the tone, and packs great power to at least suggest. He serves people properly only when he realizes these factors and does something to avoid giving an unfair treatment of things. And this is a living concern, not a fixed one. It needs continuing check and balance.

He has to be wary of the temptation to fall into easy sensationalism, and hasty, inadequately verified declarations. He has to ably protect himself from the lures of commercialism, treating information more as a merchandise rather than a good to foster human dignity, that now seems to prevail in the media world.

Just look at some newspapers. They are fast becoming carriers of advertisements, rather than a spreader of news and a source of good and healthy public opinion.

If it’s not that, then they feast on controversies and intrigues to grab people’s attention, even if only for a moment. They can generate such air of suspicion and negativism that leaves society feeling choked and suffocated.

One time, someone who was into investigative journalism approached me and we talked at length. At one point he said that he hardly did much investigation in his work, since the materials to write on are secretly given to him and his companions by certain interest groups.

Of course, while that situation may not be wrong in itself, the reality of life tells us that it usually leads to many wrong consequences. When some groups seed issues to the press, the motives behind must be strictly checked. In fact, everything has to be scrutinized.

What is important is that the whole matter be placed in its wider and proper context—the common good and the many requirements the common good makes. The ethical aspect should be examined thoroughly. A lot of things are at stake, and the potential to cause big trouble is great.

And this task is not easy, since there are many competing interests, each with its share of validity, and they all need to be properly integrated. Often, the correct blend can be known only in hindsight. But if the journalist is humble enough, he will always make the necessary adjustments, the daily tweaking, and the regular “mea culpa.”

Truth may start with facts and data, but it certainly goes far beyond that stage and enters deep into the world of mysteries. It’s how the journalist navigates its range and scope, knowing where to focus, what to highlight at the moment, how to present it, etc., that determines the kind of journalist one is.

This gives him a wide room to maneuver to fit the endless possibilities of style and creativity as well as his desire to contribute to the common good.

Yes, truth and the journalist should be real lovers of each other.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Try prayer

THIS is a serious suggestion, given in earnest and not in irony.

Now that we are again stirred into some rage, thanks to the Bolante and de la Paz affairs, we have to come back to this basic, in fact, inalienable need of ours.

We need to pray, we need to appeal to God and to everyone in the deepest part of our hearts, because, as we can see, not all the reasoning, the arguing, the discussing of issues, no matter how brilliant and incisive, can yield us the fair solution to our problems, and the joy and peace that we all deserve simply by being human beings.

Reason without prayer, without being engaged in God, is the most cunning, treacherous, and slippery fugitive hard if not humanly impossible to apprehend. Worse, it generates more mischiefs.

This is what I see in the unfolding drama of the above-mentioned cases. There is full recourse to reason, with hardly any mention of prayer. Even some Church leaders are falling into the trap, a most devious trick sweetened by good intentions.

Man can be most clever, since after all we are supposed to be the image and likeness of God. The painful anomaly is that if that Godly image is not really grounded on God but on some ghost, then we can expect truly dangerous consequences.

In recent literature, this point is interestingly captured and dramatized in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Many other literary works have conveyed the same message, trying to elicit the appropriate lessons for all of us to learn. But we don’t seem to learn.

I find it amusing to see our senators and other people, including bishops, wring their hands in frustration, tear their hair in bitterness, as they see their best efforts to ferret out the truth also ably annulled by the antics, legal and otherwise, of their targets.

But what can you expect in a game that pits reason with reason alone, pairing it with some bullying and shaming tactics? Truth, which comes from God and from how we seriously take him, can only be buried, its requirements and timing ignored. Everyone wants the truth according to his own terms. It’s a perfect recipe for truth to hide.

In fact, I see some danger here, since if our leaders are already into hysterics, you can just imagine how the ordinary citizens would feel. What do we get by simply shrieking in denunciation, as in corruption is a social cancer and calling for change of government now? We just generate more idle pathos.

The only reason why no massive hysteria has so far been provoked is because the issues are now common, people are desensitized and feel the issues concern more the rich and power-hungry than us, the vast majority of the poor.

Let them have their games, we seem to say. Don’t bother us. We’re busy surviving. This attitude, of course, is not right and needs to be corrected. But with the daily problems at hand, what can we do?

What we need to do is to pray, to surrender our heart to God in supplication, reprising Christ’s own self-offering to his Father on the cross, because this is the best form of prayer proper to us, this is what corresponds to the ultimate reality about ourselves, this is the ultimate source of power for us to be converted.

Changes in our behavior and in society, in our business and politics, in every aspect of our life will always start and end in our soul that needs to be converted. And they can only happen when we allow the soul to tackle the issue at length not only with oneself but also, and most especially, with God.

This is done usually in prayer, and not so much in noisy rallies, Senate investigations and people power.

With prayer, we derive the power to cover and penetrate what no politics, social conditioning, intellectual and verbal bullying can reach. Not even by sanctimonious appeals by a renegade and break-away pack of Church leaders whose gospel now banks on columnists, so-called civil society leaders, think tanks, etc.

I hope the current political mess will highlight the importance of prayer and other spiritual and supernatural means in resolving our problems. They are not supposed to replace the human means. They are what give the latter their soul, and their link with God, with truth and justice.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tough times demand toughness

THERE’S no doubt we are in for some tough, correction, tougher, much tougher times. The papers, the internet all talk about it. Even though we already are at Christmas’ doorstep, the familiar feel and texture of Christmas are missing.

The government can only admit of some economic slowdown. But people and experts are talking about business contraction, recession, depression, etc. Whatever! Some tightening of belt and screws is urgently needed.

What I know is that in the technical school where I’m chaplain of, many partner companies for our students training on-the-job are downsizing and are suspending the taking in of our student-trainees.

Many students and their teachers have come to me asking for prayers. Good sign! Their faith and hope are still intact. The challenge is how to sustain and strengthen them.

I’ve heard stories of how investments of some local people to the tune, for example, of P10M have suddenly been reduced to P4M in value. Whoa! That’s quite a fall.

Some of my economist-friends are giving me different scenarios of this economic crisis, showing me how macroeconomic factors are likely to play out.

Frankly, I prefer not to know a lot. It’s one of my defense mechanisms against a choking feeling of helplessness. At my mind’s back, though, I pray this could just another cycle. A rebound is going to happen at some point along the way.

Meanwhile, many people are getting depressed. I think most especially of those who barely are surviving with what they have been earning so far. And now this! It’s truly heart-breaking when you start to picture them.

We have to go through these hard times by being tough ourselves. And we can use these times to raise a notch or two in our understanding of this virtue called toughness.

Tough times call for tough actions and for toughness itself. They test our mettle. They surface the kind of spirit we have, for in the end it’s the spirit, more than anything else, that holds the key.

Like a reagent, tough times detect the range and scope, the breadth and depth of our ultimate anchor beliefs. That’s the saving grace of these unwelcome times.

We have to understand that toughness is not just a matter of physical strength or intellectual superiority. Much less is it a question of wealth, power and fame.

Toughness has its roots, branches and fruits mainly in the spirit. And it’s where our spirit takes root, where it’s established and fixed that determines the quality and authenticity of our toughness, whether our toughness can really run the gauntlet.

If it’s just based on things human and natural, then we are in for great trouble. But if it’s founded on faith in God, then even the troubles become a source of strength.

St. Paul says so: “Strength is made perfect in weakness. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the strength of Christ may dwell in me. Wherefore I am satisfied with persecutions, with distresses. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12,8-10)

We have to understand this reasoning of faith well. This is what truly corresponds to who and how we are. We are not just any creature, biological, social and intellectual. We are persons and children of God. We are mainly a spiritual being with a supernatural goal.

What is proper of us is to live in the life of God. That’s what our spiritual faculties—our intellect and will—are for. We just don’t depend on material nourishment. It’s in our living union with God, through grace and our will, where we develop our true life and derive our toughness.

Such toughness combines both hard and soft qualities, enabling us to be strong without being rigid, energetic without being violent. It lets us to be patient and hopeful without being inactive. On the contrary, it allows us to be creative and flexible, resourceful and enterprising.

Such toughness distances us from the clutches of excessive worries and self-pity. It empowers us to find joy and peace even in the midst of suffering. It teaches us how to suffer with a smile, and how to wait productively. It breeds and keeps our determination.

Our emerging tough times demand such toughness.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Befriending psychology

I WAS happy to learn that the Vatican has recently released a document, “On the use of psychology in the seminary.” It’s about time that something of this sort be officially recommended by Church authorities.

Of course, the immediate context of the document is the clerical sexual scandals that oppressed the Church in many parts of the world a few years ago and continue to haunt us today.

But it actually possesses a very objective importance, regardless of circumstances, and a universal coverage that should be highlighted, especially at these times.

In it, the crucial help that psychology as a science can give to seminarians and, I must say, to everybody else is traced. Insofar as seminarians are concerned, the document says that recourse to experts in the psychological sciences can:

“…allow a more sure evaluation of the candidate’s psychic state; it can help evaluate his human dispositions for responding to the divine call; and it can provide some extra assistance for the candidate’s human growth.”

So you see, psychology is not only for handling mental problems and illnesses, already a tremendous task. It also contributes to human growth, which should always be stimulated by every legitimate means available!

By now, everyone should be convinced that our life always has a psychological dimension. Every virtue or vice has psychological effects and triggers some psychological dynamics. We should try our best to know them.

We don’t talk about it only when there are problems. We always have to take it into consideration in all our dealings with people. That at least would denote a growth in our sensitivity to others.

Thus, in the seminary some psychological profiling has to be done of every candidate to the priesthood, noting each one’s strengths and weaknesses in this aspect, his good and bad potentials, etc. And a close monitoring of this portrait, given its dynamic nature, should be made.

I frankly believe that not only the use of psychology should be promoted but also some serious effort be made to mainstream the skill and expertise on the part of seminary formators and others similarly situated in this vital field of knowledge.

We have to drastically rehabilitate the image of psychology in the minds not only of the Church officials but also of everybody else. We cannot deny that psychology is still treated like a leper in the community or the house fool everyone tries to hide. We have to get out of that antiquated mindset.

At the rate we are developing with all the complicating and insanity-tending elements around, there’s no way but for psychology to be duly acknowledged, its need appreciated and its use spread far and wide.

Again, insofar as its use is relevant to seminary formation, the document lists down several factors that undermine the psychological health of seminarians and those asking admission.

“Those who today ask admittance to the seminary,” it says, “reflect, in a more or less accentuated way, the unease of an emerging mentality characterized by consumerism, instability in family and social relationships, moral relativism, erroneous visions of sexuality….”

Just a few months ago, I noted that Pope Benedict said something that today’s youth are a “fragile generation,” and I could not agree with him more. My everyday experience and contact with people more than abundantly validate this observation.

There are many people with clearly psychological wounds, some very deep and grave, springing even from their own family environment, not to mention, the usual problem areas: pressures from work, social relations, politics, business, showbiz, etc.

I am no psychologist but that does not prevent me from recognizing obvious irregularities in the mental, affective and sexual aspects of many people. These concerns have to be given more effective attention.

Of course, the use of psychology should not replace the spiritual and supernatural means that are always indispensable in the formation of seminarians as well as of everybody else.

It should be the constant accompaniment of these spiritual means, a tool to express and fathom the spiritual developments, since these always have some psychological manifestations. Naturally, it should also be an instrument to enhance the seminarians’ personalities and temperaments.

Thus, a sound psychology should be learned, since there are many schools of thought in this regard, and not all are good.

Friday, November 7, 2008

History cycles and providence

OK, times have shifted. The American landscape has changed, and that of the world, including ours, obviously will be affected. We’re into some exciting period of liberalism, we are told.

That seems to be the unstoppable trend especially in Europe and the so-called developed countries now. They’re into same-sex unions, assisted suicide, assisted drug use, other than the usual agenda of abortion and contraception.

In our country, we are still largely virginal, since these practices are still euphemistically branded as reproductive health. We need some more years of moral deterioration and warped reasoning before we start to openly embrace these practices.

Now it’s the turn for the social and political conservatives to rest and hibernate. For how long, we don’t know. I suppose they tried their best, but human shortcomings and other adverse factors cannot be avoided. Out of the public stage, they need to return to the straight and narrow, and retool themselves—and wait for better times.

There are those who characterize the conservative period as a total disaster, a certified failure. I prefer not to enter into the debate. While I cannot deny the bad spots, there still were instances of solid accomplishments especially in areas which I consider most important.

But life has to go on. I don’t care much if what’s coming is good or bad. Good and bad times depend on what we make out of things. I prefer to look at it as another history cycle that reflects how people, at least the American majority now, feel and think. Don’t ask me if the pulse shows health or sickness. We all are a work in progress, easily affected by all sorts of conditions. We just have to move on.

This history-cycle theory is more like the old Greco-Roman attitude toward history. It’s not completely right, nor is it completely wrong. We just take advantage of what in it can be helpful. We have to learn how to go with the tide without losing one’s sense of direction.

In the forthcoming liberal times, there still are wide spaces of hope that can be useful. We just have to be quick to take advantage of them. No matter how sharp the differences among ourselves are, we share many unavoidably common values. For example, there’s earnest desire to improve economic life and social justice, liberal style. Now, that is not a bad idea.

Of course, this is no declaration that we be passive in this flow of alternating cycles. On the contrary. We ought to take a most active part, since while there is some kind of oscillating law in history, there is also a need to energetically shape it according to one’s guiding ideology or faith. This is just how we are.

The Christian attitude to history always includes a spiritual and supernatural principle often missed out by man-made philosophies. God intervenes in human history, and actively and directly at that, though in very mysterious ways. He is the lord of history. We are his stewards who have to learn to concur and cooperate with God’s actions.

It’s for this reason that anyone who is guided by this Christian view is both confident and tense, because he knows everything is under God’s control while also requiring full human responsibility. Things depend completely on God, and also completely on us. It’s a 100-100 proposition, not 50-50, or 70-30. Of course, this would break our mathematical frame of mind. But that’s how things are.

Christianity considers history not as the product of blind forces nor of chance. It is a manifestation of divine providence and human freedom. Christians are expected to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” Ideally, there has to be concurrence between the divine and the human. But that will require us to live by faith, a truly demanding task.

The shape of history is made in the hearts of men, and not so much in politics. And in the Christian view, it is the saints, the holy men and women down the ages that figure prominently in shaping the course of history. While important and indispensable, politics can only reflect what’s inside people’s hearts. Its perfection cannot be achieved here. We have to wait for heaven for that.

In the meantime, let’s go on with our show here on earth, doing our best to concur freely with God’s providence.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Calibrate by charity

SOMETIME ago, a friend of mine, a layman who was an economist, told me that once he gave a basic Christian doctrine talk to a problematic 18-year-old son of a friend of his who just came in from the States.

In the middle of the talk, to my friend’s utter surprise, the boy just stood up and complained that he could not bear what he was hearing. When asked why, the boy simply said that he felt the talk just dealt him a severe blow, like being knocked out.

“But I just said very simple, basic Christian doctrine, Father,” my friend told me in disbelief. “I then realized I had to calibrate my talk further. I knew more or less where my that boy came from, and his was a hard case, but still I must have miscalculated…”

Sad to say, this phenomenon is getting rampant nowadays. The Good News of Christ, his humanizing and liberating teaching has become, in the complicated context of our times, a source of pain and agony to some people.

Of course, we know that the truth often hurts. But we should try our best not to mortify others. Christian mortification is self-pursued, done willingly. It’s not deliberately inflicted on others, though we can neither help but mortify one another.

There appears to be a reversal of things. What were wrong before are now considered right. What were good before now are seen as bad. Nowadays, you can hear some people accusing Christianity of being cruel and tyrannical.

Thus, chastity is now felt as inhuman and unnatural. And self-abuse, premarital sex, promiscuity are presumed to be normal and an integral part of life. In fact, many are questioning why bother about marriage at all.

The friend of mine felt he still had to bend over backward to effectively grapple with the needs of that young boy.

This is not to mention the drama and conflict surrounding the notorious Reproductive Health Bill, all played out in the media for everyone to see and hear. It clearly shows how truths of faith have become polarizing and divisive, not anymore unitive as they are meant to be.

This is the challenge we, especially the priests, are facing these days. It is how to balance clarity with charity, forcefulness with compassion, in an environment, why not say it, that seems to be sick. The truth really is not truth when charity does not go with it, when it fails to create and strengthen unity.

Remember the kindness, patience and mercy of our Lord: “The bruised reed he shall not break. The smoking flax he shall not extinguish.” (Mt 12,20) And, “Learn from me, because I am meek and humble of heart…For my yoke is sweet and my burden light.” (Mt 11,29-30)

And then again, we have St. Paul also saying: “To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak…I do all things for the gospel’s sake.” (1 Cor 9,22-23)

Of course, we know that all the charity and mercy of Our Lord did not exempt him from being misunderstood. In fact, he was, as prophesized, “a sign which shall be contradicted.”

This is what charity does. It is able to integrate a lot more elements than what our best intelligence and human cleverness can capture and tally. This can mean going all the way to dying for others, just like our Lord on the Cross when he said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23,34)

We have to be wary with our exuberance of our sense of strength and superiority over others, be it because of our high IQ, more talents, better physical endowment, etc. We have to be extremely careful of our automatic sense of righteousness. This has to be constantly checked, purified and properly grounded.

Our attitude should be what St. Paul enunciated: “We that are stronger ought to bear the infirmities of the weak…” (Rom 15,1) And, “In humility, let each esteem others better than himself.” (Phil 2,3) After all, the strong can bear the weak, but weak can not bear the strong.

To tweak our efforts to the finer requirements of charity involves learning the skills to pray, weigh, listen, talk at the proper time, or just keep quiet otherwise, be good-mannered always, learn to be patient, double up on sacrifices, etc. Avoid arguments, but flood the environment with good doctrine.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Exposing a placebo freedom

FREEDOM of choice is a favorite catchword of those who are for abortion and other moral distortions that make up what’s now known as the “culture of death,” a phrase coined by the late Pope John Paul II. This concept is behind the notorious Reproductive Health Bill now pending in our Congress.

This freedom of choice was the battle cry, the sledgehammer used to ram open the door and walls of the Christian moral order that prevailed sometime ago in many countries. It was a very popular banzai that managed to seduce a good following, for it captured the secret yearnings of those whose concept of freedom is actually licentiousness.

Thanks to this principle, the Christian tone is vanishing in many parts of the world. What used to be crimes are now redefined as rights of a person. It’s now ok not only to abort, but also to engage in pornography, homosexual acts, or to do euthanasia, etc.

Growing in number, the pro-choice people now proudly declare themselves liberated from religion. To them, religious faith is a myth that has finally been dislodged from the world. They are claiming that another era of Enlightenment, courtesy of pure reason and the people’s sense of practicality, is now the mainstream.

They claim they are thoroughly post-Christian, that is, they are past Christianity. Sorry, but I have another reading, and that is that they have become post-human. More than abandoning Christianity, they are actually abandoning humanity. Our sense of humanity is currently in the ICU, in comatose waiting for drastic resuscitation.

They don’t admit this, of course. But it is not only because of faith that such reading can be made. If examined philosophically, it can be shown that this freedom of choice as understood by the pro-choice people is a grave anomaly and an outright attack on humanity.

In their frame of mind, freedom is stuck with the aspect of choice alone. It does not pay attention to any objective bases or criteria by which the choice is made. It’s a freedom that is subjective, depending solely on the whims and preferences of the individual. It floats on the air or drifts in the ocean, without any clear object to engage with or a defined destination to head to. It starts and ends with the individual.

Pope Benedict XVI hit it bull’s eye when he recently said that some people conceive freedom as an “untouchable right of the individual” while the “importance of its divine origins and communitarian dimension” are ignored.

“According to this interpretation,” he said, “an individual alone can decide and choose the physiognomy, characteristics and finality of life, death and marriage.” He insisted that “true liberty is founded and developed ultimately in God. It is a gift that is possible to welcome as a seed and to make it mature responsibly so as to truly enrich the person and society.”

He clarified that our freedom is by definition built on an objective “universal natural moral law that precedes and unites all our rights and duties.” It’s never just a purely subjective affair of individuals.

Related to this disreputable type of freedom of choice is the abused and exaggerated version of what is originally an objective right to privacy. Again the pro-choice people understand this right to privacy as a blanket license for any person to do whatever he wants. The only restriction is that he does not make a public mess.

These two dangerous moral principles are the main ingredient in the very dangerous bill to be discussed shortly in the US Congress. This is the Freedom of Choice Act or FOCA, which seeks to go beyond simply codifying the case that led to the legalization of abortion, the Roe vs. Wade case. It seeks to dismantle whatever restrictions and regulations many states in the US have validly made with respect to abortion.

FOCA therefore represents the peak of the malice of an ungrounded freedom of choice and an unhinged right to privacy. It is the sum and substance of all the harm these questionable moral principles can cause.

The Reproductive Health Bill in our Congress is patterned after the FOCA, though still in its initial stage. But it clearly shares the same philosophy. It uses the same rotten moral principles.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Training in austerity

IT’S a virtue that all of us should cultivate. Mind you, it’s not against progress or creativity. It’s neither anti-freedom nor anti-development. In fact, it’s a requirement for all these values and goals to be achieved.

We have to disabuse ourselves from thinking badly or negatively of this virtue. Austerity is not supposed to be a drag or an impediment in our life. Quite the contrary. It’s what enables us to fly high, to free ourselves from undue limitations and confinements.

This is because austerity, with all its properties of simplicity, humility, sincerity, modesty, meekness, etc., clears our hearts of inappropriate attachments to junky things. It sobers us in situations where we are prone to get intoxicated by new things and the like.

It helps us to keep our senses, to hold our ground and continue to be the master of our life and judgments, when things extraordinary, exciting or controversial assault us.

Austerity helps us to observe the distinction as well as the connection between our being and having, what we are and what we possess, and always gives priority to the former over the latter.

Austerity keeps us sane and realistic. It checks on our emotions, passions and urges, especially when they tend to go overboard. And these days, that’s what usually happens—we are constantly titillated if not directly tempted to do crazy things.

It contributes greatly to the purity and vitality of our heart, making our humanity breathe more freely, as it were, protecting it from the lures of artificiality and deception. It makes us transparent.

We, of course, have to rescue it from the clutches of the rigid and stubborn kind traditionalism or the heartless type of conservatism, because that’s where many people stereotype and freeze it, practically distorting and killing it.

Authentic austerity is flexible. It knows how to combine the old and the new, how to conform and how to innovate, how to flow with the times without getting lost. Its guiding principle is love of God and love of neighbor. It’s not beholden to any consideration of the purely earthly kind.

With the heady and dizzy pace of our development, austerity is what we urgently need these days. In fact, the problems and crises that we are facing now—think of the US financial meltdown—may be traced to the absence of austerity in our life.

Many of us have lost the taste for simple living. We are held captive by the mindless grind of commercialism and consumerism. Many are confused and left helpless not only before outside temptations, but also against the wanton ways of our internal selves.

Austerity puts our heart in the right place, enabling it to recognize the right priority of things, and to focus more on the spiritual values than on the material ones that also need to be given due attention.

That is to say, austerity allows us to detect what truly are the essential things in life. It immediately warns us of the tricks and chicanery of the gimmicks employed in the media to catch our attention.

The training in austerity will involve many things. The most delicate part of this task, as Pope Benedict XVI once said, is to find the proper balance between freedom and discipline.

“Without clear rules in behavior and in life, applied everyday even in the small things,” he said, “one’s character is not formed, and one is left unprepared to face the trials that will not fail to come in the future.”

It’s up to us to come up with these clear, concrete rules to guide us in our relation with things in general. We have to examine our conscience. We have to consult our elders. We have to adapt the attitude of helping one another live this virtue well.

What can immediately come to mind are to be sparing in the use of money, to be discriminating in responding to our likes and desires, to learn how to volunteer acts of service to others, to foster spirit of hard work and fortitude.

And then to be very generous in responding to the needs of others, especially to the poorest of the poor, up to the point of heroic sacrifice on our part.

By teaching us how to truly love, austerity will humanize and Christianize us!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Give body due attention

FOR at least one second, I had to grapple with some mixed feelings when I was asked recently to bless what they called a wellness hub. So far, no one has invited me yet to bless a spa or a massage parlor. I’m afraid that will take more time for me to grapple.

The wellness hub was a big, spacious room with a manager and instructor, and outfitted with all sorts of benches, bars and weights, a treadmill, a stationary bike, and a wall-to-wall mirror that made me even more uncomfortable.

I’m used to see my face only before a mirror, and frankly to see myself in full length, showing how my clothes hang on my body frame, mortified me. Later, of course, I had a good laugh at myself, which has always been my way of resolving what I don’t understand or like.

I knew I could and should bless it, but I realized I was carrying a baggage toward anything that looked like pampering our body. I was brought up to be a bit harsh on my body, and through the years I could only agree why it had to be like that.

I’m more in the body-vs.-spirit frame of mind. I’ve been suspicious of anything the body likes. My automatic attitude toward it knows only one mode, that is, discipline it, give it less than what it asks, never spoil it, even punish it a little just to make sure.

I know what is going to the extreme, as in being a puritan or a Manichean whose ideology is to consider the body as the principle of evil, and I’ve been careful not to fall there. But this has not prevented me from being strict with the body.

Remember what our Lord said, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” and this has always made such a great impact on my mind it has become a guiding principle.

My experience can only attest to the veracity of the warning, and I’ve always felt I have to do something about it. Thus, since my college days, I’ve imposed on myself some kind of 24/7 guarding, doing this as discreetly as possible, though this attitude gave some unpleasant openings for temptations.

In principle, I know that the body and spirit should go together. But I’m afraid I have neglected to work that theory out. Not until some doctors have recommended that I do some exercises. No diet yet, but I was warned that may be the next step.

The body also has to be given due care. It cannot and should not be taken for granted. This is because the body, for all its shortcomings and failings, form a unity with the spirit.

There has to be a more pro-active effort to establish and keep a link between the body and the soul. These two constitutive elements of our being should work harmoniously for each other’s advantage and benefit.

“Your bodies are the shrines of the Holy Spirit…glorify God by making your bodies the shrines of his presence,” St. Paul tells us (1 Cor 6,19-20). We have to take care of it, because as St. Paul says, sin finds an ally in our body, that is, the flesh or the lower part of man—our senses, instincts, passions, etc.

Taking care of it means to submit it to Christ’s spirit which does not nullify but rather purifies and elevates the natural condition of our body.

In other words, if done properly, our exercising can connect the natural condition of our body to its supernatural goal, the Adonis perfection or Venus beauty to Christ’s cross.In short, you can develop a six-pack and be holy, not vain.

If done properly, this attention and care of our body can generate a sense of self-dominion we can have over our body. It creates a certain energy for us to develop virtues, to give glory to God and work actively for the others.

It prevents us from falling into pride and arrogance, as well as into sensuality and greed. Going to the gym need not be an exercise in self-indulgence. It can be a form of praying and putting ourselves in better conditions to love and serve.

I think we need to highlight these proper values that can be found and fostered in places like the wellness hub that I just blessed. We have to help one another to discern these values amid the many possibilities which can spoil what in principle can be an objective human need.